UAV experts present the latest in drone tech

by Saemmool Lee

Drone researchers and entrepreneurs presented emerging Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technologies, services, and policies at the Drones: Technology, Policy, and Society conference co-sponsored by CITRIS and Honeywell and held at UC Berkeley for a crowd of more than 150 on October 18.

Keenan Wyrobek, co-founder of Zipline, a drone startup that delivers medicines to rural hospitals in Rwanda, described how his company’s small autonomous aircraft “Zip” is saving people’s lives. “Red blood cells have a shelf life of 40 days from the time of donation and then through transport, testing, and then use,” says Wyrobek. In developing countries, the poor conditions of rural roads make on-the-ground transport even harder.

“This drone delivery network is solving the medical delivery problem,” he says. Zipline has completed almost 10,000 flights and delivered more than 18,000 units of blood over the past two years.

Adam Bry, CEO of Skydio, a robotics company that makes flying tools, explained how most autonomous drones are manually flown, making the capabilities of those drones basically determined by the skill of the pilot. On the other hand, the capabilities of fully autonomous drones are determined by software, which was Bry’s motivation to start Skydio. “That’s an incredibly powerful paradigm – you can have the creativity of the best software developers in the world for any particular application, and that capability can be available to anyone, anytime, on-demand,” he says.

Brad Westphal, senior director of Honeywell, introduced the company’s end-to-end inspection and data analytics services using small UAVs. While the program primarily serves aircraft, renewables and oil and gas companies, Westphal addressed the scale needed to improve safety and lower costs across commercial industries. “Within each one of these businesses, there are opportunities for drones and UAVs to provide efficiency and extract value,” he says.

Thomas Ptacek, senior innovation leader of Georgia-Pacific, talked about unmanned systems in the pulp and paper industry. “Anytime we think of putting up scaffolding, ladders or cranes for inspection purposes, we really should be asking ourselves why are we not using some sort of vehicle,” he says.

Claire Tomlin, director of CITRIS Sustainable Infrastructure Initiatives, addressed the air traffic control and management systems that her group has been developing. Safety is their primary focus. “This is an ever more exciting problem because the airspace is becoming a lot more complicated with more UAV operations,” says Tomlin. She has been working on the idea of incorporating machine learning to developing safety protocols.

Parimal Kopardekar, NASA senior technologist for Air Transportation Systems, talked about what NASA is doing in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry partners: how they can transform airspace operations to enable new entrants in the airspace, particularly drones.

Kopardekar says that current systems are not sustainable. “We want to embrace innovation in aviation,” he says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to figure out how to maintain the safety or the operations that we all enjoy.”

Ruzena Bajcsy, Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, led a panel discussion about potential job loss and transformation with robotics and automation. Bajcsy says that the question of who should benefit from the resulting increase in productivity is a political one. “I wish there would be a more political conversation on that but I don’t see much,” she says. “But it is a serious problem.”

The conference brought leaders in industry, government, and academia together in one place with efforts by Tomlin and Honeywell Fellow Sudip Mukhopadhyay.

Watch video presentations:
 Drones: Technology, Policy and Society

Full Youtube Playlist

Opening remarks – Claire Tomlin, Berkeley and Sudip Mukhopadhyay, Honeywell

Delivering better health via drone – Keenan Wyrobek, Zipline International

B2B services using drones – Brad Westphal, Honeywell

Drones in Paper Mills – Thomas Ptacek, Georgia-Pacific

AR/VR for drones – Joseph Menke, UC Berkeley

Cargo drones for e-commerce – Svilen Rangelov, Dronamics

Drones in Gas Sensing and Agriculture – YangQuan Chen, UC Merced

The Past & Future of Open Drone Platforms – Chris Anderson, 3DR

Panel Discussion: Drones/Robots Industry and Society